By Jerry Bonkowski
Tony Stewart turns 38 years old in less than three weeks – May 20, to be exact. But it's pretty apparent that even though he's getting older, he's not slowing down a bit.
If anything, he's getting better in his old age.
And something tells me the best is still yet to come for the feisty lead foot and two-time Cup champion from Columbus, Ind.
Sure, Stewart's former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, won Saturday's Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in a convincing fashion – although Tony was closing in on Kyle in the waning laps.
Maybe if there'd been another 10 laps, Stewart might have caught the younger Busch brother and the outcome would have been much different.
But the fact remains, Stewart finished second, his fourth top-five finish in the first 10 races of a season – in what is, in most respects, a "new" team.
Stewart has finished third (Martinsville), fourth (Texas), second (Phoenix), 23rd (Talladega) and second again (Richmond) in his last five outings.
And, if you count the first five races of the season, he had three top-10s, all eighth-place finishes (Daytona, Fontana and Atlanta), he's had a total of seven top-10 finishes overall in the first 10 races of the season.
If I've said it once, I've said it probably 50 times in the last seven weeks (ever since his eighth-place finish at Atlanta):
Tony Stewart is a win waiting to happen.
And it IS going to happen soon, very soon. He may not have done it at Richmond, but there's plenty of places upcoming that Stewart typically shines at, including the next three venues: Darlington, Charlotte and Dover.
If he doesn't win at least one race in those next three stops, I'm going to be shocked.
Sure, Stewart may have the best equipment there is, being a defacto farm team of sorts to Hendrick Motorsports.
But let's also not forget that Stewart has literally rebuilt the old Haas/CNC Racing organization from the ground up – not exactly with his own two hands, but with some savvy personnel decisions bolstered by going out and hiring some of the best minds in the business.
"It's all about the people," Stewart has said over and over again, probably more times than I've said he's a win waiting to happen.
But at the same time, Stewart has rebuilt an organization that was steeped for several years in nothing less than mediocrity and transformed it into an organization on the brink of not just breaking through, but appears ready to serve notice that it is going to be the next big force to deal with in Sprint Cup competition.
And let's not forget Stewart's teammate, Ryan Newman.
When Stewart decided he was going to accept a 50 percent equity stake in Haas/CNC nearly a year ago – essentially getting an equal share in the company without having to put up any money of his own – and began making preparations, he arguably had his pick of drivers.
Well, okay, maybe guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were already locked up into long-term contracts. But there were plenty of other drivers Stewart could have picked to be his wing man.
But it was Newman he chose – for a multitude of reasons. They not only were fellow Hoosiers, Newman may have been a bit more subdued personality-wise, but had the same kind of fire and drive that Stewart had inside.
And, perhaps most importantly, Newman never had been able to live up to the expectations so many had placed upon him during his days with Penske Racing.
It was almost as if he had hit a brick wall or dead end at Penske. He would occasionally shine – like winning the 2008 Daytona 500 – but more often than not, just didn't get the finishes to match the abundant talent he had.
It was time for a change for Stewart, and he readily saw that it was also a time for a change for Newman, who was eager for a major shake-up in his professional career.
Together, they've been reborn competitively in 2009 – and there's so much more still ahead of them in the season's remaining 26 races.
And at the same time, the drivers of the Nos. 14 and 39 Chevrolets – regardless if they are a farm team of Hendrick Motorsports or not – suddenly have lots of people talking about them, their teams and their organization.
When Newman led several laps during Saturday's race, the announcers on Fox were already speculating that he might take the checkered flag. Instead, he wound up fourth, still a strong finish and just two spots behind his boss.
Mark my word, it's not going to be very long before you see Stewart (currently third in the Sprint Cup standings) and Newman (now 10th in the standings) finish 1-2 in a race, or vice-versa, and it won't be the one and only time you're going to see that.
Get ready for many more showings like that to come.
A year ago, when Stewart announced at Michigan International Speedway that he was breaking ranks with Joe Gibbs Racing after a decade and going out on his own, many critics blasted Stewart.
They claimed he was committing career suicide, that he was putting blind loyalty to return to Chevrolet ahead of the likelihood of the potential of greater long-term success with Toyota, and that he essentially was throwing his career away.
If anything, the only thing Stewart has thrown away is the criticism of the so-called experts, who are being forced to eat crow now. But then again, Stewart has never listened to them, anyway – so why start now, right? Ditto for Newman.
Frankly, Tony and Ryan have always marched to a different drummer of sorts.
That's why I'm not totally surprised that they've sure got a pretty damn good beat going right now.